A GoodNews Exclusive
Every day, like clockwork, we go through the motions – feeling anxious about the latest Covid-19 case count, the heartbreaking death tolls, poorly managed vaccine administration, hundreds and thousands of people struggling to breathe, overwhelmed frontliners, and an unrelenting, virulent virus that has permeated every corner of our world.
Are you exhausted? I sure am.
But things changed a few days ago. I spoke to a woman who showed me that there was still hope despite all the darkness shrouding our perspectives.
Early last Wednesday morning, I received a link to a Facebook page – “Here’s a story, Nithiyah. A Sri Lankan activist caught Covid and was sent to a government centre for quarantine. While there, she helped source items to make things better.”
I thought perhaps she had brought in a few supplies. I was so far off. No one could have fathomed what this incredible woman had done for the Rambukkana Quarantine Centre in Sri Lanka.
Kumudini David, a voice coach, artist, and activist, had documented her 11 days at a quarantine centre, after testing positive for Covid-19.
“Day 1 at Rambukkana Quarantine Centre, Day 2…, Day 3…,” her Facebook posts, which read like diary entries, confounded me.
Kumudini had successfully raised over 1,000,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (approximately RM 21,000) in the span of 10 days. This money was used to purchase necessities, medication, study material for the children and a whole host of essential items.
But Kumudini’s fundraiser was not the only thing that caught people’s attention. It was her selflessness. This inspired woman brought the whole centre together in order to improve their living conditions.
She lifted beds on her first night there, resolved arguments amongst the different communities of women, she started dance parties to lift their spirits and above all, her kindness and empathy knew no bounds.
The Woman Behind the Story
Although Kumudini was still at the quarantine centre, we managed to arrange for an exclusive interview with GoodNews on Wednesday evening. I was beyond excited to meet this wonder woman.
As we went on with our conversation, my inspiration grew ten-fold. Remember that exhaustion I was talking about earlier? It was obliterated once I realised how fatigued Kumudini must be after all the work she has done while battling this deadly virus.
I wondered if the thought, of having to quarantine at a government centre, scared her.
“It was scary but my whole life has been about going from one crisis to another, especially since I’ve been a single mother for a long time. I’m fairly cool under fire,” Kumudini responded, with distinct bravery in her voice.
Instead of frantically worrying about the quarantine process, the activist began looking for information. It was then that she realised there wasn’t much she could find. This was the reason she started her Facebook diary – to ensure that others, in her shoes, would be able to source this information.
This worked almost immediately as the second group of women, who came in after her, were much more physically and mentally prepared.
When Kumudini arrived at the centre, it was in its early stages of being transformed into a ‘women’s only’ facility.
Since the facility was ‘new’, the administrative staff had not thought through the challenges that would arise when operating a quarantine centre for women and children.
“When I first came in, I noticed how these women were vulnerable and helpless. The tension amongst them was also high because they were worried. I’m a bleeding heart so when I saw their struggles, I couldn’t just leave them,” Kumudini determinedly said.
Beguiled by her modesty on Facebook, I commented that although she doesn’t see herself as a hero, lots of people think her actions are heroic. She brushed this aside by chuckling and reasoning that most people would have done the same. Kumudini noted that it was also the kindness of everyone who donated that made this initiative a success.
The Rambukkana Quarantine Centre
At the Rambukkana centre, there was a constant influx of patients who all have distinct needs. However, they do not always know what they might need immediately. The centre also does not have room to store these items and with all the army procedures, Kumudini’s work got extremely complicated.
Storage problems, delivery processes, the urgency in needs… Kumudini was handling all these issues by herself. But the workload never derailed her efforts.
Even within her ‘limited’ capacity, Kumudini had managed to organise multiple supplies deliveries, coming from all over Sri Lanka. Thanks to her, the centre, hospital, along with the women and children, will have supplies for months to come.
Throughout her ‘diary entries’, the voice coach also divulged the symptoms she faced in battling the virus. Body aches, headaches, loss of taste, tightness in her chest, fever – Kumudini was very much a symptomatic Covid-19 patient. And her following response only made her work that much more admirable:
“Well, when things need to get done, you just grit your teeth, take a deep breath and do it,” she said, matter-of-factly.
Fortunately, her symptoms have subsided and she’s feeling much better.
To lighten the somber tone our conversation had taken, I asked Kumudini about the many nicknames the women and children had given her, one in particular caught my attention – anda ussana akka (sister who lifts beds)
Kumudini giggled and began telling the story behind this quirky nickname.
When her group arrived, the only beds available were right at the back. When they were settling in, they didn’t realise there were people at the back who hadn’t tested positive. They were simply following their families or had been first contacts.
These women yelled at Kumudini’s group to move away.
“We were already under a lot of stress, having arrived at a strange place and realising that the toilets and showers were all in the open. So, when these ladies started yelling at us, I felt like the vulnerable women who came in with me were getting bullied. And I always speak up for those who can’t,” Kumudini explains, a hint of protectiveness in her tone.
An argument ensued between the two groups. The women who came in with Kumudini were frightened and attempted to move their beds. When she saw them struggling, the activist helped them by lifting 7 iron beds.
“And that’s how anda ussana akka came to be!” she proudly said.
When the women who started the argument realised that Kumudini wasn’t “just another spoilt brat from Colombo”, they gathered courage the next day and asked ‘anda ussana akka’ to start a dance party.
And despite the awkwardness, that’s exactly what Kumudini did. This gesture broke the ice amongst the ladies, and they began interacting with each other. As the days passed, they eventually became friends and helped each other out.
The Unofficial Mayor of Rambukkana Quarantine Centre
In a post on Facebook, Kumudini dubbed herself as the unofficial mayor of the Ramabukkana Quarantine Centre.
“They realised I can be kind and very helpful, but I am also not to be crossed.”
Kumudini would listen to the different sorts of problems these women were facing. Even the administrative staff would come to her!
I wondered if all this had become overwhelming. She chuckled and quipped, “Well, not really! These are all very human problems, and you just have to deal with them without an agenda whilst maintaining an open mind.”
In order to guarantee the distribution of supplies after she leaves, Kumudini had set up a system with the army and the women who will be around after she left.
“I’ve also been constantly reiterating to these women that the administration and army will listen if they ask. They are terribly frightened to ask, especially for items such as sanitary napkins. Even to ask me, they were embarrassed out of their minds!” Kumudini exclaimed.
Although she had set up a system, Kumudini will be in contact with the director of the Kegalle Hospital at Rambukkana, to ensure these supplies continue to be distributed.
The women and children at the Rambukkana centre have grown very attached to Kumudini and her heart of gold. She posted about their “tearful parting” as her final quarantine entry. They will miss their ‘mayor’, ‘anda ussana akka’ and ‘madam’ terribly.
At the end of our interview, I asked if she had anything to say to those undergoing quarantine at centres. In earnest encouragement, she said,
“Quarantine is scary, but it doesn’t need to be! Take a few deep breaths and know that you are not alone in this world. If you work together, things will eventually get easier,”
A couple of days after the interview, I went on Kumudini’s Facebook page to read her final quarantine post, expecting her account to be quiet for a few days to allow her some much-deserved rest.
To my surprise, I saw this:
“Day 1 after leaving the Rambukkana Quarantine Centre
Yes, I’m not done…”
The Rambukkana heroine allowed herself only half a day’s break and is “now back to disaster management”, highlighting a few urgent needs that require immediate attention.
In fact, for the next few months, Kumudini plans to conduct these initiatives at a disaster management scale, in collaboration with NGOs who have reached out to her. This will allow, not just the Rambukkana centre to benefit, but quarantine centres all over Sri Lanka to receive much-needed aid.
This iron lady, who lifts iron beds, conducts massive donation drives and who cares so deeply for the vulnerable and marginalised, is nowhere close to being ‘done.’ She’s not just a beacon of hope to the women and children at Rambukkana, she is a testament to better days ahead amidst these dark times.
If you’re keen on contributing to Kumudini’s cause, please find her account details on her Facebook page. If you’re unable to make international transactions to local bank accounts in Sri Lanka, keep an eye out for updates from Kumudini on other transactional methods.
Picture credits: Kumudini’s Facebook page